Christmas thoughts

O little towne of Providence, how cloudy-gray we see thee today...  looking out the library window on the old New England ville.  I'm about the last person here, the librarian-birds have flown the coop for the holidays.

"Providence" has a futuristic ring to it, in a theological sense.  It signals a Plan, a "divine economy" at work, somehow... a thought that easily leads us sleepy sheepies astray.  Into by-ways of fanaticism or complacency or quietism (quietism is a great danger to anyone spending a lot of time in a library).

The NY Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat posted an interesting column recently, sketching out some Babel-divides in the U.S. over beliefs & worldviews.  He suggests there are three main groups of thought : 1) believers in Biblical religion, all of whom ascribe, on a variable scale, some literal & historical actuality to the scriptures; 2) "spiritual" people, who trust in some over-arching spiritual meaning in experience, but who are not doctrinaire or especially focused on the rational grounds of same; 3) secular rationalists, people who do not believe in God or the promises of religion, but who are liberal idealists grounded in the humane reason of the Enlightenment.  Douthat presents his own opinions on the viability of each of these standpoints, & then closes with this passage :

"The cracks are visible, in philosophy and science alike. But the alternative is not. One can imagine possibilities: a deist revival or a pantheist turn, a new respect for biblical religion, a rebirth of the 20th century’s utopianism and will-to-power cruelty. 

"But for now, though a few intellectuals scan the heavens, they have yet to find their star." 

Their star.  It's been pointed out in various contexts that the Christmas holiday has morphed a lot over the centuries; that the celebration of Jesus's birthday was less important to the first Christians than the Easter time, & that the commercial/Santa-Claus family holiday we celebrate owes a lot to ancient pagan seasonal get-togethers.  All true.  But I guess to my mind our version of Christmas merges with the Epiphany holiday of early January (which is celebrated as Christmas, I think, in the Eastern Orthodox churches).  After all the nativity scene in the manger has its source in the Gospel story of the visit of the Magi, the three wise men from the East, who followed the "star" (perhaps an astrological symbol) to find the divine King... ie. this is the story of Epiphany.  All those Christmas creches and mangers stem from this story.

Epiphany... I believe the word originates in the Greek for "light".  Illumination.  The wonder of a discovery.  The Magi follow the star to find... the one about whom the Gospel of John states, "in Him was light, and the light was the light of men."

I had a delightful conversation at a neighborhood holiday party last weekend, with a young Brown professor (from India) who told me she was involved in a joint Brown/RISD project to develop a symposium/exhibit next year on the circus.  It sounds like a terrific idea.  Her own area of expertise happens to be the theme of animals in modern French/European literature.  I mentioned a New Yorker article from a few years back by William Dalrymple - I think it was called "Homer in India" - about contemporary Indian practitioners of archaic oral epic poetry.  I was reminded of a passage in that essay where Dalrymple talks about the special bond between humans and animals in the "shepherd" communities which maintained this kind of traditional poetry.

Anyway, it didn't occur to me at the time, but that little chat now seems sort of appropriate for the holiday season, with the stable & the manger & the sheep & the cows & the "shepherds keeping their watch by night". 

Poets have a professional bent toward metaphors, metamorphosis.  How a poem climbs up the "stairway of surprise" (Emerson's image).  So maybe we can develop an affinity for epiphany.  This is somewhat how I understand matters of theology & religion in general.  It's about metanoia - a "change of mind."  St. Paul talks about the main aim of discipleship (it's a discipline) as a "renewal of your mind".  Renewal through focus - training the eye toward God in all things.  Of course, in the end, it's about more than that, even : it's about a complete re-orientation of the whole person, a true and radical change of heart.  But it begins with epiphany - with a light turned on.

Nothing changes, seemingly, in the round of things.  The same stupid stuff happens.  There are no wonders in the sky or sea.  Yet we experience a change of heart... our eyes open.  In some mysterious fashion, our hard hearts of stone are softened into warm hearts of flesh.  Scrooge weeps & changes his ways.  We see our own ordinary lives in a completely new light.

The star... the star in the manger... among the animals.  What I see here is a symbol, a metaphor, for the wholeness of the human image.  I mean an image of global humanity assuming our whole dignity - our wholeness - among the domesticated animals.  Because outside the manger lurk the wilder beasts : the "ravening wolf", for example.  The wolf, the dragon, the monster... an image of the bloodthirsty tyrant, out hunting for the child, the true heir - Herod, massacring the innocents.  This is the counter-image of humanity stooping to sub-humanity : to brutality, violence, fraud, oppression.  This is the false tyrant seeking to destroy the true sovereign, the whole human Image.  This is the beginning of the Good Friday/Easter tale (at the other end of the "infancy narrative").  This is the tale of humanity's unfinished business : of a world still imprisoned by our own sub-human greed and brutality, our blind heartlessness, our bent toward complacent indifference, injustice.

Can we find the wisdom of Providence?  Perhaps it's emerging despite our foolishness.  Perhaps it's a gift which we don't deserve.  A new order of things, a reign of peace and justice together.

Ross Douthat describes an American Babel-divide between secularist, New Ageist, religionist.  If I were going to address this divide in a reasonable fashion, from my own perspective, I might refer people to the 20th-century philosopher/polymath/scientist Michael Polanyi.  I find in his writings, especially his main work Personal Knowledge, very strong and persuasive explanations of the intellectual gray area and battle-ground between science and faith.  For Polanyi, all human knowledge - science not excepted - is ultimately personal.  And yet he is able to synthesize this axiom with a conviction that knowledge also retains its proper objectivity, universality, and disinterestedness.

There is a theological corollary which fits as snugly as a shepherd's cap over Polanyi's argument.  This is the "theory" (or article of faith) that the facts and qualities we experience and understand about the human person represent partial evidence of a more profound, substantial Personhood.  It's hard to deny that this proposal requires a major act of imagination, or leap of faith, to accept.  But there it is.

So if we see the "child in the manger", under "the star", among the "shepherds with their flocks"... and recognize here a symbolic image, a story, representing some more general, universal fact - that is, the vision of the divine Person shining like a light through the human person there, in the "lowly stable"... well... maybe these are some of the materials of metamorphosis, a more pervasive Epiphany... something actually Providential...


Babel / Pentecost

The students heading home, it's extra quiet in the library, I have a little more time to babble today.

The winter solstice upon us, snow on the ground, the air bright & milky.  Christmas, New Year.  I sat in the window booth with my coffee mug, watching the Providence scene go by.  Locals I've crossed paths with here since the early 70s... sometimes I recognize them.  I turned 61 last May; my adorable grand-daughter arrived in August, I'm officially a grandpa.  I'm not officially or unofficially any wiser, as far as I can tell.  "Life pierces us with strange relation." 

I look back at youth, and marvel at the vigorous perspicuity of instinct and intuition.  We simply go and do what we will at that age, the happy geniuses of ourselves.  We don't reason excessively about it (though much of that doing involves battles with/against ourselves).  Maybe I should have!

But this ain't what I planned to natter on just now.

Have been stuck & struggling with a poem-scroll I'm calling Ravenna Diagram.  Maybe I had a little insight the other day, when it occurred to me that perhaps I didn't need to scare up more images, or historical material, so much as change/amplify the modes of discourse.  "Modes of discourse" is not the best way of putting it... what I mean is the thematic frameworks, the categories of subject-matter.  This is still garbled, sorry!

I am a stubborn writer in many ways.  I try to adapt and revamp from within.  So, for example, for a long time I've tried to unify actual historical/biographical material by means of obscure allusions and imagery.  I do this on purpose.  It's a kind of "making-strange", I guess : I love it.  The puns, the multivalent words, the alien images.  It somehow helps make the poem a distinctive thing-in-itself.  Gives it heft.

So I'm focused on presenting a real historical argument or message in Ravenna Diagram.  It is analogous to painting a big historical panorama - but using elliptical, obscure means.  A patchwork or mosaic.  At the same time, I'm trying to give the sense of a journal, a journey, a pilgrimage - for that is, really, what these long ongoing poems are about.  They are incremental records of a trip (Whitmanesque notion).

My point here is that is new quasi-insight might help me past an impasse : the daily discouragement and lack of confidence, the loss of purpose.  It's the feeling of pointless irrelevance which attacks me sometimes.  It's the impasse resulting from a desire to communicate yoked to a confusion about the means.  But my insight was this : I have the capacity to address more directly certain philosophical/political/cultural problems, if I can manage to branch out a little from the narrow, iconic-historical symbolism (my usual modus operandi).

I haven't put this too well, and it isn't what I meant to talk about.  But it is somewhat related.  This notion of combining and coordinating and harmonizing different modes and levels of discourse and subject-matter is not just a private writerly problem.  In fact the compositional problem is merely a minor analogue to one of the basic problems facing the world at large.  Let's call it the Babel problem.

The Babel problem is not the fact that the peoples of the world speak different languages.  It's that the human family cannot even agree on the grounds of reasoning together.  Our modes of discourse are at odds : our philosophical/ideological priorities are at war with each other.

If, for example, I want to speak on a theological level - about, say, the character and "personality" of God, or about the premise of transfiguration and eternal life - I am confronted immediately by skepticism grounded not in theology but in ethics or politics.  Thus I am opposed (in my own inner debates, as well as in dialogue with others) by arguments like : "How can you take seriously these vaporous notions, these purely speculative claims, when we are confronted every day with massive injustice, oppression, suffering and violence?"  So here we have a conflict between disjunctive terms, of subject-matter at cross-purposes.  We can't even approach serious disagreements within these intellectual frameworks - say, the contradictory worldviews of various religious faiths - because those frameworks themselves are tangled up with more immediate political disputes and world power-struggles and rivalries.  Religious concepts and language are applied, not in order to open channels between the human and the divine, or to liberate and help people in their troubles, but in order to form more cohesive factions (us versus them), or to solidify political/economic oppression by means of manipulative slogans.  The games of group identification and mob control are the prime instruments of this planet's exploiters and oppressors.  They say to themselves : Let us trouble the community, let us disrupt civil society, let us set our group against theirs, let us point the finger, preach enmity and war : and we will thereby gain wealth and power

Thus the Babel of a world stymied by violence and exploitation struggles to remain in place.  We can't agree on topics for discussion, much less on any conclusions.  In this situation it seems important to keep in mind the underlying global unity of the human race.  Which reminds me of a certain saying in the New Testament.  I can't even recall the proper context (such a proper babbler am I!), but it goes something like this : "I say unto you, every sin shall be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Spirit.  This cannot be forgiven."  What does Jesus mean here?  Here's my take on it.  The Holy Spirit is elsewhere called the Spirit of Truth, the Advocate.  I think Jesus is emphasizing that, underneath all the contingent differences, Goodness and Truth are one.  They are one for all mankind.  Thus when someone calls goodness evil, or causes suffering in the name of God, they are betraying Truth itself.  Cloaked in the mantle of goodness, they tyrannize over others.  The sin against the truth cannot be forgiven because the lie itself must first be broken and dissolved.  Only once this has happened, & only then, perhaps, may the personal consequences for the sinful soul be addressed.

I could be totally off on this reading, I admit : I'm just babbling here.  Thinking that the human species as a whole is endowed with conscience, the knowledge of right and wrong (if that conscience has not been eroded or mangled).  Meanwhile, simultaneously, our narrow hearts and minds eagerly grab onto answers and solutions : code words and simplistic dogmas, organizing principles which are mere myths, mere tools of oppression.  Narrow-minded bigotries, selfish and proud chauvinisms, politic greed.  Partisan rancor.  Guile & bile.

So the Gospel story of Pentecost - when the Holy Spirit descended as tongues of flame, and everyone suddenly understood each others' languages - seems symbolic of a new order of agreement.  An untangling - by means of universal truth - of the discords of warring discourses.

So now I'm sputtering out of time & steam here.  To sum up : I've been looking at this parallel between the confusions within an ongoing poem, and the Babel-anarchies of human discord.  I haven't even gotten to the theme that lurks behind these ruminations : the seasonal marvel of Christmas and Epiphany.  Poetry, at the root, is about metamorphosis and wonder : it is a celebration, a song of rapture.  Whence comes this rapture?  The glimpse of an infinite, ongoing, eternal, indestructible, everlasting human resurrection - a breaking-in of cosmic Love - beyond all our doubts and dreams.  A Christmas miracle, right in front of us all. La vida es sueno (sings the poet)...


The Arrogance of the Poet

"The arrogance of the poet."  Has a ring to it.  Also a history.  I think of the arrogant William Blake's remark, that Milton was "of the Devil's Party without knowing it."  In other words, Milton, in Paradise Lost, expressed, perhaps unwittingly, some admiration and sympathy for the arrogant Satan he imagined.  Not that I agree with Blake's assessment : I think Milton was completely ironic about his angelic anti-hero.  But this is a recurrent motif in the operatics of poetry.  What's at the root of it?

I remember the legend (apocryphal?) of Chaucer, toward the end of his life, renouncing all his poetical works as worldly vanity.  A sort of flipside image of the traditional cultural authority awarded to poets & poetry : Chaucer's work may have been vanity, but it was also exalted as the incomparable mirror of its local world & time.

I often think in this regard of these lines of Ed Dorn :

To a poet all authority
except his own
is an expression of Evil
and it is all external authority
that he expiates
this is the culmination of his traits

Which seems an elegant encapsulization of the arrogance in question.  It's close to Emerson, & Stevens, & Coleridge, & Whitman - the idea of the poet's Adamic imagination : a primal, primary, "original" power to envision the true "order of things", and put it into words : utterly "new" words.

This is the intellectual arrogance which that proud & powerful poet T.S. Eliot strove so mightily to curb, exorcise, & transmute into spiritual humility.  We are weak mortals, sinful creatures - actually blinded by our spiritual pride, the idolatries lurking 'neath our mighty visions.  Thus spake Thomas Stearns.

The poets' characteristic bent goes back, I guess, all the way to prehistory.  The shaman, the seer, the oracle... the chanted evocations & summons of archaic ritual & magic... the cosmologies, genealogies of the gods, tales of the tribes... the ancient poets "speak" the logos of the universe in a manner analogous to the I-am-what-I-am of Genesis, who spoke & it was made.

In this arena, there is obviously an erotic, ecstatic dimension, vaunted for example by Nietzsche : the tension between the wise claritas of Apollo and the fertile eros of Dionysus.  Here Orpheus & the poets are the original rock stars - lords of the bacchanal, the goat-gods, leaders of the sacred dance...  all pretty clearly related to the famous-liminal social status of the poet (since the goat-dance is a reminder of the goatishness of Milton's proud Satan).

Are we getting any closer to the mystery here?  Don't ask me, this is just my blog.  We're looking at shards in a dusty kaleidoscope.  Let me apply some personal allegory.  Around age 16, I fell for the arrogance of poetry with all my heart.  I felt it in the New York School poets (the Big Red Book anthology, and others).  I had taken to it even earlier, in that wonderful, playful 60s anthology for schoolchildren (A Gift of Watermelon Pickle).  Poetry creates a powerful, mesmerizing, occult force-field... out of the purest, wildest, most liberated & crazy free speech.  This I suppose was a basic attitude of those times, of the generation just before mine, and of my own (I turned 18 in 1970).

& in my mild-mannered way, I lived it.  For my requisite high school senior "Chapel speech" I wrote and recited a mini-epic poem.  For my college application essays I sent... poems (& somehow got into Brown U).  In college I skipped most classes other than Shakespeare & Creative Writing.  By the beginning of my senior year I went through a full-blown Robert-Lowellish manic breakdown, complete with personal visitations by the ghost of Shakespeare & the Holy Ghost.    I dropped out of Brown, bummed around, worked (very) odd jobs, applied for a lead guitar slot with the Rolling Stones.  Came back to Brown & graduated 3 years later by the skin of my sheepskin.  Meanwhile I filled crates of spiral notebooks with poems, thoughts, plays, & so on.  I married the daughter of a poet & became a VISTA volunteer (until Reagan came along).  My last real job, before retiring (to the library), was "professional resume writer".  I have been an arrogant poet from day one.  My only humility in this regard was the knowledge that I could never combine being a poet and teaching literature, or writing.  But of course that humility too was just an expression of my arrogance.

& so how does the allegory of my life illustrate our topic here?  I think the poet cuts a figure in the world which is determined by his or her vocation.  & what is the substance of that calling?  For me it resides in this stance of undetermined freedom & originality.  The sacred Word emerges from nowhere, because it is everywhere : the divine Word is a creative act - the original creative act - of the One who uttered it.  The poet in this sense is a sort of limited & faulty imago of her Onlie Begetter.  Limited & faulty, in that we are a work-in-progress, or a work-in-mystery : that is, we see this divinity only through a glass darkly.  We are copies of an original - an original which I am happy to identify with the historical & trans-historical Jesus, with the Trinity.  (This confidence, I am lucky to say, may help protect me from the flipside of that glory - the verso to which all vainglorious poets are susceptible : that dead-end, sulfur-stinking, foolish pride, which arrogates the ultimate originality to my Self alone.)

We take joy in the freedom of the poet & of poetry, because that playful freedom reflects (if only very partially) the dignity of our human status as creatures of a Creator.  Osip Mandelstam meditated on this in his unfinished essay "Pushkin & Scriabin", where he writes that the Redemption - that historical event - liberated Western art.  How?  In the proclamation that the whole world had been saved, the redemption set Art itself free from any kind of determinism : the artist was now free to "play" like a sheep in the fields of the Lord, to play, as Mandelstam puts it, "hide-&-seek with the Father".

But there is something humble, not arrogant, about a sheep.  So here maybe we have a reiteration, in another key, of the old Greek dichotomy between Apollo & Dionysus.  Here Christ is both the host at the wine-fest, the Dionysian leader of the dance, as well as the pivot of divine Sophia, Holy Wisdom - the Apollinian moderation & measure of the cosmic Logos.  That arrogant inspired humble saint Simone Weil wrote tellingly of this process of mediation, how in this mode Jerusalem & Athens embrace, Love and Knowledge are joined as one.
Arrogant young Dionysius, ca. 1975.  (Shortly after Chris Kraemer took this photo in NY, I flew to London, to talk with Keith Richard about music & religion.)


i.m. Nelson Mandela


Winter fog like cold sea-spray
filters through Providence.
Mystifying substance
of an ember hope (Isaiah... hey

ey yo).  Long northern nights tilting
toward Pearl Harbor,
India Point (spare
rose gyroscope).  Melting

through ice barricades, at last
(27 years, gone
into light).  Some yarn
entangles history – a mast

for Admiral Nelson (constellation
of a heaven-yard).  The ship!
Bound for that whisper-
signet... Southern Chris-Craft, spun

yonder (with Gandhi, MLK –
whorl, Milky Way). Blessed
be they who finally kissed
the sky (tall Eureka-tree

nursing Po’s Eridanus, and
the other three).  There is
a gemstone, set beneath this
coffin (folded in a flag)... grand

father of fathers, king of kings,
your little almond tree
of ripe humility
is peace-weaver tonight.  Blessings.